DUNEDIN — Pinellas County's biggest Mardi Gras celebration, the only one with a parade, started with a few downtown business owners in 1992.
"We all wanted to get off (from work) and go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras," said Gregory Brady, owner of Gregory's Salon on Main Street. "But we couldn't afford to go."
So they brought New Orleans and Mardi Gras to Dunedin.
The Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association did not exist at that time, so Brady worked with Kathy Carlson, co-owner of Kelly's restaurant, and several other merchants.
They chose Mayor Manny Koutsourais for parade grand marshal, Brady said, and appointed female impersonator Vanessa Valentine their first queen.
By day, her name was Vanessa Haley and she worked in the kitchen at Kelly's. At night, she was Vanessa Valentine and performed in the bar 1470 West, where Blur dance club is now.
The merchants had to work to persuade a beer vendor to show up.
With a few crafters and a box of beads, they were expecting a 100 to 200 revelers for the small parade down Main Street.
To their shock, 1,000 to 2,000 people showed up.
The party has grown steadily. Now in its 18th year, the Mardi Gras celebration — complete with a craft show, parade and music — is expected to draw 25,000 to 30,000 people on Tuesday night.
Other changes that have evolved are that the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association organizes the event, distributors compete for the beer concession and judges choose the queen in a pageant that includes talent, evening gown and public speaking competition.
Brady said Blur dance club was packed last week when Kennedy Davenport of Fort Lauderdale won the competition for queen. He said Davenport does some amazing acrobatic dancing.
The event also crowns a king now and this year it is Peter Kreuziger, co-owner of Bon Appetit and Marina Cafe, Cafe Alfresco, the Best Western Yacht Harbor Inn and other businesses. He has dubbed himself "King Peter the Benevolent."
"I'm glad my mother wasn't there to see my coronation last Sunday night at Blur," he said.
Michael Bryant, owner of the Dunedin Brewery and chairman of this year's celebration, said the committee sought to economize this year. At the same time, the city and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office looked at ways to provide services at the least cost.
One sign of those leaner times: Parade participants are providing their own beads at a cost of about 6 to 14 cents each for basic one-strand beads from a local vendor.
But that shouldn't put a damper on the celebration. About 16 food vendors will sell jambalaya, burgers, hot dogs, Greek food, kebabs, chicken, desserts and more on Main Street. Beer and wine also will be available.
Rose Tucker, co-owner of Got Wine and Cigars, said sparkling Spanish wine will be sold for the first time, along with 11 other wines.
At least 27 crafters will start setting up along Main Street at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday west of Douglas Avenue. The show officially opens at 5 p.m., but many will start selling as soon as they have their booths up.
Robbie Sheehan, owner of Dunedin Beads, said there will be crochet, Mardi Gras masks, glass and shell crafts and fun lighted gizmos. Lots of vendors will sell jewelry, including one with Mardi Gras beads that light up and "adult" beads in the back of the booth.
The parade will start at 7:30 p.m. at Dunedin Stadium. It will include floats, politicians in convertibles and marching Celtic warriors.
The main stage, at Pioneer Park downtown, will feature two good-time bands: the Gumbo Boogie Band from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and the Vodkanauts from 9 to 11 p.m.
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.